SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship leaves space station for autonomous trip home

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship floats away from the International Space Station, with its nose cone still flipped open after undocking. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship undocked from the International Space Station and headed toward what could be the most stressful phase of its autonomously controlled test flight: atmospheric re-entry and splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.

No humans were aboard the 27-foot-long craft when it unhooked itself at 11:31 p.m. PT Thursday and backed away from its port on the station’s U.S.-built Harmony module, 250 miles above the planet. But the Dragon went through all the steps that will have to be executed when astronauts take their first ride, as early as this July.

Once the Dragon reached a safe distance, NASA’s Mission Control in Houston radioed its congratulations to SpaceX’s team, the station’s crew and partners around the world.

“We wish this new asset to human spaceflight fair winds and following seas as it returns to Earth for its splashdown in the Atlantic,” Mission Control said. “You have all made us proud today.”

Aboard the station, NASA astronaut Anne McClain returned the compliment on behalf of the three-person crew.

“We want to take a moment to recognize this milestone accomplishment that marks the inaugural mission of the commercial crew program,” she said. “Fifty years after humans landed on the moon for the first time, America has driven a golden spike on the trail to new space exploration feats through the work of our commercial partner SpaceX and all of the talented and dedicated flight controllers at NASA and our international partners.”

McClain said “it won’t be long” before astronauts start riding SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as well as Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, another space taxi that’s being developed for NASA’s use.

“We can’t wait,” she said.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is an upgraded version of the robotic cargo-carrying Dragon that has been ferrying payloads to and from the space station since 2012, a year after NASA retired its space shuttle fleet. The past week’s flight marked the first-ever Crew Dragon space trip, known as Demonstration Mission 1 or DM-1.

A spacesuit-wearing, sensor-laden mannequin nicknamed Ripley (in honor of Sigourney Weaver’s character in the “Alien” sci-fi movies) rode in one of the Dragon’s seats, to document what living, breathing astronauts would hear and feel. A plush-toy version of Earth was also included as a zero-gravity mascot, along with 400 pounds of supplies.

About 300 pounds of cargo, including unneeded hardware and scientific samples, were packed aboard the Dragon for the return trip.

Thruster firings set the spacecraft on a course to jettison its unpressurized “trunk,” descend through Earth’s atmosphere, deploy its parachutes and splash down off Florida’s Atlantic coast at about 8:45 a.m. ET (5:45 a.m. PT) today. NASA TV coverage is due to start at 7:30 a.m. ET (4:30 a.m. PT):

Just after the Dragon’s launch from Florida on the night of March 1-2, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he was most worried about the flight’s final phase.

“I’d say hypersonic re-entry is my biggest concern,” he told reporters.

If all goes well, a recovery ship will pick up the Dragon and bring it to shore for inspection.

Some issues still need to be resolved before the next Crew Dragon is cleared to carry two NASA astronauts — Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken — on Demonstration Mission 2 to the space station. For example, some tweaks may need to be made to the thruster system, and the parachute system still has to be fully certified for crewed flights.

Additional issues may turn up as a result of Demo-1’s post-flight assessment, or during an upcoming test of the Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort system. Few people would be surprised if Demo-2 was launched later than July.

Boeing, meanwhile, is scheduled to send an uncrewed Starliner to the space station no earlier than next month, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Starliner’s first crewed flight would follow, in August or later.

Because of the schedule uncertainties, NASA has been talking with the Russians about buying more rides aboard Soyuz spacecraft, at a price that could amount to $80 million or more per seat.

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